Should Britain be run by Tesco?

The company's record ain't great

Congratulations to Alex Brummer, who won two prizes at this week's inaugural Editorial Intelligence Comment Awards. He picked up a gong for financial column of the year and also bagged a second prize for best magazine commentator, for his work in the New Statesman.

But I have to disagree with the great man about his column in today's Daily Mail, headlined: "What if Tesco ran the country?"

Let's be honest. We all love Tesco. OK, let me rephrase that. Even those of us who care about low pay, workers' rights and corporate social responsibility and who normally take a rather dim view of big business often end up making the confession that I am about to make: I spend about two or three nights a week shopping at my local Tesco superstore. I can't help it -- Tesco makes life so convenient.

But I have to draw the line at running Britain along the lines of Sir Terry Leahy's multibillion-pound corporate behemoth. Here's something to give you a flavour of Alex's column:

How different Britain might have been had Gordon Brown got his way and managed to persuade Sir Terry Leahy, the quiet man who leads Tesco, to run the National Health Service.

But if Leahy, who is married to a GP, had agreed to take on this mammoth task, he would never have made the botch of a job that New Labour has achieved . . .

In so many other areas, a country run according to Tesco principles would have meant a dramatic improvement in the population's living standards . . .

There are so many other areas where Britain could have benefited from the Tesco touch . . .

Allowing mistakes to drag would be anathema in Tescoland.

Hold on! As I said, I'm as big a fan of Tesco as the next man when it comes to a convenient and cheap weekly shop . . . but running the country? It would be AWFUL. Alex makes no reference to the various critiques of Tesco made in recent years by the green, sustainable and trade union movements.

He makes no mention, for example, of the Competition Commission's recommendation, early this month, that the government "take the necessary steps to introduce a competition test in planning decisions on larger grocery stores". The CC's proposal, writes Alex Renton, "acknowledges that 'Tesco towns' like Swansea, Truro and Inverness -- where £3 in every £4 is spent with the retailer -- are a bad thing". (By the way, Renton also writes that "if you do shop at Tesco, by the way, bear in mind that the store has a 30 per cent share of British grocery retail and has been doing gloriously out of you through the recession, with sales up yet again in the first six months of the year, and pre-tax profits now just under £1.5bn for the period".)

In his Mail column, extolling the virtues of a hypothetical Tesco-led Britain, Brummer also fails to mention any the numerous local campaigns against the firm's expansion plans across the country. Nor does he mention a story reported in his own paper, in August, about how Tesco used "bogus" statistics to try to convince the residents of Manningtree to back "its efforts to expand its supermarket empire":

Britain's biggest retailer sent leaflets to residents in an Essex town claiming its own research demonstrated there was a "need and demand" for a new supermarket.

However, the telephone poll used as the basis of the claim showed that just 38 out of the 440 people surveyed wanted a new supermarket -- 8.6 per cent.

While even fewer people, just 20, said they would like to see a new Tesco.

Today the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) condemns the leaflet as misleading and has ordered the supermarket not to send it out again.

But perhaps most importantly, if Brummer is right, and Leahy would do a better job of running the country than Gordon Brown or Alistair Darling, how does he explain this letter from Barack Obama, of June 2008? The then presidential candidate and junior senator from Illinois took time out from his campaign to write to Sir Terry, complaining about the firm's lack of engagement with "community stakeholders" in the United States and lending his support to a campaign by the United Food and Commercial Workers' Union, which Tesco's American operation, Fresh & Easy, had refused to meet with, let alone recognise. "I strongly request that you revisit that decision," wrote Obama, warning that workplace rights would have a prominent place on his presidential policy platform. "I again urge you to reconsider your policy of non-engagement in the United States."

If you think Brown had problems with Obama, how do you imagine a Tesco-led Foreign Office would handle the "special relationship"?

 

 

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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Our union backed Brexit, but that doesn't mean scrapping freedom of movement

We can only improve the lives of our members, like those planning stike action at McDonalds, through solidarity.

The campaign to defend and extend free movement – highlighted by the launch of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement this month – is being seen in some circles as a back door strategy to re-run the EU referendum. If that was truly the case, then I don't think Unions like mine (the BFAWU) would be involved, especially as we campaigned to leave the EU ourselves.

In stark contrast to the rhetoric used by many sections of the Leave campaign, our argument wasn’t driven by fear and paranoia about migrant workers. A good number of the BFAWU’s membership is made up of workers not just from the EU, but from all corners of the world. They make a positive contribution to the industry that we represent. These people make a far larger and important contribution to our society and our communities than the wealthy Brexiteers, who sought to do nothing other than de-humanise them, cheered along by a rabid, right-wing press. 

Those who are calling for end to freedom of movement fail to realise that it’s people, rather than land and borders that makes the world we live in. Division works only in the interest of those that want to hold power, control, influence and wealth. Unfortunately, despite a rich history in terms of where division leads us, a good chunk of the UK population still falls for it. We believe that those who live and work here or in other countries should have their skills recognised and enjoy the same rights as those born in that country, including the democratic right to vote. 

Workers born outside of the UK contribute more than £328 million to the UK economy every day. Our NHS depends on their labour in order to keep it running; the leisure and hospitality industries depend on them in order to function; the food industry (including farming to a degree) is often propped up by their work.

The real architects of our misery and hardship reside in Westminster. It is they who introduced legislation designed to allow bosses to act with impunity and pay poverty wages. The only way we can really improve our lives is not as some would have you believe, by blaming other poor workers from other countries, it is through standing together in solidarity. By organising and combining that we become stronger as our fabulous members are showing through their decision to ballot for strike action in McDonalds.

Our members in McDonalds are both born in the UK and outside the UK, and where the bosses have separated groups of workers by pitting certain nationalities against each other, the workers organised have stood together and fought to win change for all, even organising themed social events to welcome each other in the face of the bosses ‘attempts to create divisions in the workplace.

Our union has held the long term view that we should have a planned economy with an ability to own and control the means of production. Our members saw the EU as a gravy train, working in the interests of wealthy elites and industrial scale tax avoidance. They felt that leaving the EU would give the UK the best opportunity to renationalise our key industries and begin a programme of manufacturing on a scale that would allow us to be self-sufficient and independent while enjoying solid trading relationships with other countries. Obviously, a key component in terms of facilitating this is continued freedom of movement.

Many of our members come from communities that voted to leave the EU. They are a reflection of real life that the movers and shakers in both the Leave and Remain campaigns took for granted. We weren’t surprised by the outcome of the EU referendum; after decades of politicians heaping blame on the EU for everything from the shape of fruit to personal hardship, what else could we possibly expect? However, we cannot allow migrant labour to remain as a political football to give succour to the prejudices of the uninformed. Given the same rights and freedoms as UK citizens, foreign workers have the ability to ensure that the UK actually makes a success of Brexit, one that benefits the many, rather than the few.

Ian Hodon is President of the Bakers and Allied Food Workers Union and founding signatory of the Labour Campaign for Free Movement.